The British Virgin Islands has imposed a night-time curfew and closed bars, gyms and hairdressers from Tuesday in response to a COVID-19 outbreak that has brought the number of active cases to 480 from close to zero within one week.
One person has died.
In the 15 months since the outbreak of the pandemic until June 2021, the British Overseas Territory counted fewer than 300 total cases and just one COVID-related death.
Now, the BVI government has brought in a wide range of new lockdown measures, following an emergency meeting on Monday evening. Businesses and restaurants must restrict customer numbers in line with social distancing protocols, while bars, barbers, gyms and clubs have been forced to close.
In a video message on Facebook, Health Minister Carvin Malone said, “This situation is troubling and all measures must be taken to arrest this upsurge.”
He said government was “balancing lives and livelihoods” with its new measures which are set for an initial 14-day period. The health minister also announced the roll-out of a community screening schedule.
Dr. Ronald Georges, the islands’ chief medical officer, on 4 July reported that testing had identified several clusters, including 14 cases at a residential nursing home and 18 staff members at the territory’s Health Services Authority testing positive.
Last week, a pre-school was closed and all staff and students were quarantined after the detection of several COVID cases.
Private healthcare institutions and other essential services have been advised to begin preparation for mass screening of their staff.
COVID cases rising
“The current situation with respect to the COVID-19 outbreak in the Virgin Islands is rapidly evolving and, given the rapid progression of the outbreak, identification of any variants is important,” Georges said.
Unlike Cayman, the BVI does not have the ability to test for COVID variants and samples must be sent to CARPHA for genetic sequencing.
On 2 July, more than one in 10 samples – 113 out of 752 – tested positive.
Georges said, “It is expected that case counts will continue to rise, and it is important for all of us to act responsibly and follow directives to arrest the current rate of transmission.”
The chief medical officer advised people to stay at home and work remotely if possible, avoid mass gatherings, follow social distancing guidelines and to wear masks.
Less than a fifth of the cases were the result of travel screening and more than 80% were detected during contact tracing.
Most new COVID-19 cases are unvaccinated. The share of fully vaccinated or partially vaccinated people who tested positive was 17% and 13%, respectively.
The BVI eased its entry requirements for vaccinated travellers on 15 May. They must produce a negative PCR test but, like their unvaccinated children, are not subject to quarantine restrictions.
Unvaccinated travellers have to take a PCR test on arrival and must undergo a seven-day quarantine.
Among the new COVID measures, the BVI government reintroduced rapid entry testing for vaccinated travellers from 12 July.
Slow vaccine take-up
Health Minister Malone urged the public to do its part and “take personal responsibility” by getting vaccinated.
“If you are not going to do it for you, then do it for your parents, your grandparents, your great aunts and uncles, or the most vulnerable who are already being impacted by this disease,” he said.
Malone added that if people did not want to get vaccinated for themselves, they should do it to protect their children and their workplace “to ensure that work continues, services continue, and that you get paid”.
The BVI received 34,000 Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine doses from the UK, enough to inoculate 17,000 people. But take-up has been slow, with 13,761 people having received one jab and 9,570 people being fully vaccinated. Full vaccinations represent about 31.8% of the population.
The current batch of vaccines is set to expire at the end of July.
The chief medical officer said, “Despite the many conspiracies and misconceptions surrounding vaccination, it remains a safe and effective layer of internal protection to add to all of the other layers of protection that we have against COVID-19.”
He said, “Severe disease, hospitalisation and death are largely eliminated, making COVID-19 a much less potentially serious or life-threatening disease for vaccinated persons.”
Citing international data, Georges noted that vaccination reduces the probability of contracting the virus by 60-90% and lowers risk of transmission by those that do test positive by up to 67%.
“As a result, vaccinated persons who are potential or casual contacts of cases and not experiencing symptoms do not need to isolate at this point in time,” he said. “If they do develop symptoms, they should isolate and be tested immediately.”